George Dangerfield’s the Strange Death of Liberal England is now somewhat of a trope. The gist of the title is frequently applied to institutions which have declined, unexpectedly at the time, inevitably in hindsight.
I hope the same can’t be applied to the great civic museums in England’s cities.
Dangerfield’s thesis was that in 1906 the Liberal Party in Great Britain seemed at the top of its game. Blessed with a large majority, it was a great reforming government, introducing national insurance, old age pensions and laying the foundations of the welfare state. Yet by 1920 it was a spent force, browbeaten by reaction from the right and usurped from the left by the Trade Unions and the Labour party.
Since 2000, England’s civic museums have prospered on the back of state investment. The Renaissance in the Regions programme and capital investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) enabled both redevelopment and capacity building. In particular the Renaissance programme supported both scholarship and inspired a zeal in connecting with new audiences. Today city museum audiences are more numerous and diverse than ever. Virtually every museum in England has refurbished building and galleries, and more of its collections are available on-line.
But the veneer of success is misleading. English civic museums now face similar external disruption to that which challenged the Liberal Party in the 1920s.
During 2010-16 revenue support for many city museums has fallen by over 30%. This has had a palpable effect on scholarship. Curatorial knowledge and experience has declined (the phrase ‘hollowing out’ has been used to describe this). Capacity to engage with new audiences has fallen, outreach has all but disappeared.
But the appearance of success remains. In the last two years four major HLF Heritage Grants of over £8m have gone to major civic museums (including my own).The UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2015 protected much of Arts Council England’s funding. Yet, at present, HLF funding is primarily for capital work and Arts Council funding to city museums constitutes a much smaller proportion of museum’s overall turnover than that from local councils.
It is central government cuts to grants to local councils which is the biggest threat to local museums. Many local councils have cut discretionary services to the bone already. Some maintain that by 2018-19 they will be unable to provide any non-statutory services at all. The announcement of Lancashire County Council’s proposal to end funding for five museums to make budget savings, is the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout the last five years ministers in Department for Culture Media and Sport have been unwilling to make the connection between cuts to local government and threats to culture. Moreover, Arts Council England has consistently held a line that they will “support authorities which support culture” This is untenable.
The Liberal Party in England declined because it did not embrace the new spirit of radicalism espoused by working movements. Civic museums have consistently been more radical than most. Museums from Newcastle to Bristol and from Liverpool to Birmingham have used their incredible collections of art, social history, archaeology and natural sciences to increase access to learning, promote social justice and tackle the challenges of how we live together in a crowded planet. Liberal England decided to ‘trim to the right’ resisting reform and was ultimately swallowed by the Tory party. It would a huge mistake for our civic museums to retrench to survive – moving to a comfort zone of charging or catering only for existing audiences. They must continue to do the kind of work more commercially driven organisations cannot or will not do.
Our great city collections are second to none in Europe. Few nations outside their capital cities have regional collections to compare to Glasgow, Birmingham or Liverpool. As Ellen McAdam pointed out at the Museums Association conference in 2015, civic collections have their genesis in gifts of 19th century philanthropists who profited from trade and Empire. At the time, civic museums were a means to impress on the public, Britain’s leading role in the world. Today a civic renewal in museums of a different kind is possible. It could be one which helps to map the dynamism of cities and their communities, one which understands our imperial past and projects a progressive view of a networked world.
In order to do this, city museums must be vocal about their public benefit. And this must be urgent because time is running out to develop serious alternative means to fund these organisations.